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Decoding Trainer Speak: Figuring out what those labels could really mean

It’s a little known fact that dog training is a completely UNREGULATED industry. That’s right, that living, breathing, feeling creature you call your best friend? Anyone in the world can go online and begin advertising themselves as a professional dog trainer whenever they’d like to regardless of education or experience. And some do. After watching one episode of reality television and teaching their dog how to sit, suddenly they think they’re the next great dog trainer.

In truth, learning how to train any animal takes time and practice. Different dogs need different motivators, and a good trainer needs to know where best to use operant versus classical conditioning. So the fact that anyone can label themselves a trainer (or worse, a behaviorist!) is frustrating, to say the least. It also means it can be difficult to figure out exactly what a trainer is saying when they throw terms like “balanced”, “purely positive”, and “cpdt” around, since there’s no one around to fact check them.

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to some terms that are frequently used in the dog trainer world, and what they mean. The following are abbreviations that mean the same thing across the board:

  • CCPDT: Stands for the “certification council for professional dog trainers”. The council is currently the only certifying body for dog trainers, and provides the titles of “CCPDT-ka” and “CCPDT-ksa” to those that pay for and pass their tests. Please note, while the CCPDT does have a code of conduct, trainers certified through them can still use positive punishment and negative reinforcement and certification does not guarantee force free methods.

  • CPDT-KA: Stands for “Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed”. Anyone who has these letters following their name has put in a number of hands on hours as either an assistant trainer or lead trainer and has been tested using a standardized multiple choice test.

  • CPDT-KSA: Stands for “Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge and Skills Assessed”. To meet the rigorous standards of this title, a trainer must both pass the test for the knowledge assessed title, keep track of their hours training and working hands on with dogs, and also film examples of their training to be sent to the CCPDT and be assessed. There are far fewer trainers certified as Cpdt-ksa than Cpdt-ka.

  • APDT: Stands for the “Association of Professional dog trainers”. While membership to this society may show that a trainer is continuing their education, it is not a certifying body. Anyone can join this association and use their logo if they pay the fee, and being a member of the APDT does not necessarily guarantee a force free professional.

  • PPG: Stands for “Pet Professional Guild”. Similar to the APDT, the Pet Professional Guild is a professional group that anyone can join to learn more as both an owner and a professional. However, unlike the APDT, the professional applicants for this association are screened to make sure they only practice humane, scientifically sound techniques. They also cater to other animal professions such as groomers, doggy day cares, and feline/equine/avian behavior specialists, so are a little more diverse.

And the following are phrases and buzzwords commonly used by trainers when discussing their methods. First are the phrases that typically mean humane, science based training methods are being used:

  • “Purely positive”: I’m torn about the use of this terminology. While I understand that those who use this mean to say that they use and are totally committed to the use of positive reinforcement, at the same time it’s poor use of scientific terminology. I’ve yet to meet a force free trainer who doesn’t also use negative punishment (the removal of something the dog wants to decrease a behavior). However, I would not say “stay away from trainers who use this phrase”, it’s really just some food for thought for science nerds like myself.

  • “Force-free”: Force free is meant to describe training methods that do not use pain or intimidation to compel your dog to do something. If a trainer says they are force free, there should be absolutely no use of choke or prong collars, or shock collars. Force free professionals work using positive reinforcement to tell the dog what the trainer likes, and negative punishment (removal of something the dog wants, not to be confused with positive punishment, adding something scary to keep the dog from doing something) to deter the dog from doing undesired behaviors.

  • “Operant and classical conditioning”: Operant and classical conditioning are the two ways that all living organisms learn, and any dog trainer worth their salt should know exactly how and when to use each of these. If you find a trainer who knows how to use these two terms correctly, you know you’ve found a trainer who is knowledgeable about learning theory and behavioral science.

And the following are labels and terms to stay far, far away from when looking to hire a trainer:

  • “Pack theory”, “Dominance”, “Alpha”: Many trainers who still embrace old school (read: outdated) training methods are firmly rooted in pack theory. Pack theory is the theory that the human must assert his ‘dominance’ over the dog to remain an alpha, or the dog will get too confident and will start to try to usurp the human for the dominant position. This theory is so outdated it’s not even funny. Wolf ethologists, animal behaviorists, and dog trainers have all disproven this theory, and it just won’t die. Rest assured, your dog is not trying to dominate you, and you do not have to do anything like alpha rolls, muzzle grabs, or scruff shakes to show your dog who is boss. In fact, this will damage your relationship and may get you bitten. Stay far, far away from anyone who still subscribes to this theory.

  • “Firm leader”: As a dog owner and guardian, you should strive to be a benevolent, loving teacher to your dog. While our dogs sometimes look to us for leadership, I have found that trainers that tend to use this term subscribe to the above mentioned pack theory. Again, be wary and ask lots of questions of anyone using this phrase but not specifically subscribing to force free methods.

  • “Traditional”: A nice word for old fashioned, outdated methods. Traditional trainers have stopped learning, and still practice training that is damaging to the dog-human relationship. No need for that.

  • “Balanced”: The term ‘balanced’ was originally coined to mean a trainer that uses all four quadrants of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment,and negative punishment) to train a dog. A balanced trainer, by definition, is not a force free trainer because at some point they usually employ positive punishment (the addition of an aversive). I think the word ‘balance’ is appealing to us as humans, because it brings to mind moderation (everything in moderation!) and balance tends have positive connotations (balancing work and play, etc.) Don’t let the positive connotations associated with ‘balance’ cloud your judgement, a balanced trainer is simply one that has expanded their knowledge base but will still use rough, compulsory methods if they feel they can justify it.

  • “Guaranteed Results”: NEVER trust a trainer that guarantees results. Dogs are living animals. Not computers to be updated. Every living thing has a different brain, a different history, different levels of hormones and cortisol in their system. To guarantee something you must be able to predict, and that is simply not possible with a dog or any other living thing.

  • “Immediate Results”: Another term that should send off major alarm bells. The only kind of training that will produce immediate results when working with a living animal is the suppression of a problem behavior, typically suppressed using pain and fear. True behavior modification takes time and consistency, and anyone promising anything else is looking to make a quick buck using unreliable methods that will fail in time.

So there’s that! It’s not easy to find a reliable, committed, science based trainer, but if you look for membership in associations that help to continue education, certification by the CCPDT, and keep an eye out for those buzzwords, you will be able to categorize trainers in no time. Your dog will appreciate the fact that you looked for someone who will help to strengthen and deepen your relationship, rather than damage it using fear and force.


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